At the end of last year, a group of white American men met in Maryland, US to discuss the ills plaguing the Western world. During this conference, these men rallied against “corporate neoliberalism,” the “trillions spent in insane wars,” and of course, “the capitalists.”
The men critiquing global capitalism are the country’s most prominent white nationalists, according to a recent report in The Nation. On the surface, everything they were pushing for struck at the core at left-wing values. Eli Mosley (real name Elliott Kline), who recently took over the leadership of white nationalist group Identity Evropa, called for white nationalists to be “explicitly anti-capitalist.” White supremacist blogger Mike Enoch (real name Mike Peinovich), called for “a right-wing workers’ movement,” while Richard Spencer, probably one of America’s most prominent white supremacists, voiced his support for national health care, saying “we need to be willing to take care of people…”
The far-right’s co-option of the language of the far-left may seem odd at first—the two ideologies sit on oppose end of the political spectrum and are often fighting each other (in bouts that have been known to turn violent). But while the far-right may parrot the left, the two still diverge widely in their intended goals and actions. When Spencer speaks of altruism, he never hesitates to expand that the society that he is striving for is a white ethno-nationalist state, which he hopes to achieve through “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
There’s an obvious reason for the alt-rights new focus: the need to recruit and grow has become imperative. Leaders have themselves admitted that they have already exhausted their dwindling pool of recruits from the right—“We’ve almost literally drained the market of libertarians,” Kline admits.
The shift in language isn’t just a recruitment tactic, however, it’s also a calculated move to rebrand. To do so, the alt-right is following an already-established playbook by the European far right, which in the 1960s, also started to adopt the left’s language. “They would say we believe in black power and brown power as long as you agree with white power,” says Alexander Reid Ross, a lecturer at Portland State University and the author of Against the Fascist Creep. “The point of it was to use some of the rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s towards the aims of fascist ideology,” he adds.
The intellectual underpinning of the alt-right lies in France. The alt-right have come to claim 74-year-old French academic Alain de Benoist as their “spiritual father.” It was around the 1960s that de Benoist first found notoriety, as the leader of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) in France—a far-right movement that changed the discourse around migration and identity in Europe and beyond.
Fifty years after its formation, historians still struggle to pinpoint the ideology of Nouvelle Droite. A chapter in the 1995 book The Far Right in Western and Eastern Europe notes that by the early 1990s the Nouvelle Droite’s became “a centre of confusion.” Tamir Bar-on, a professor at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and leading academic on the movement (who regularly debates de Benoist), insists this confusion is entirely intentional and tactical—the confusion allows them to operate in plain sight. He’s keen to stress that though Nouvelle Droite co-opted some of the language of the left and averted outright fascist insignia, its philosophy is deeply rooted in neo-fascism. (A claim de Benoist continues to vehemently deny).
At the heart of the Nouvelle Droite ideology is “the right of difference.” As British politics professor Roland Axtmann, notes in his 1996 book, for the Nouvelle Droite “differences have to be preserved at all cost: they must be cultivated, developed and defended against any attempt to abolish them. As a result, this particular version of the right to difference is organized around a ‘mixophobic’ core: it is ‘haunted’ by the threat of the destruction of identities through interbreeding—physical and cultural crossbreeding.”
Australian politics professor Matthew Sharpe noted last year that “behind their leftist-sounding language,” of the Nouvelle Droite and the movements it inspired, “it carries forwards the legacy of 20th century thinkers of the European far Right like Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Julius Evola and Carl Schmitt, all of whom were involved in different degrees in the rise of interwar fascisms.” Thus, the natural logic of protecting cultures and ethnicities is the mass deportation of people (or, they would argue, the peaceful return of immigrants to their homelands).
During the 1960s, the Nouvelle Droite recognized that activists on their side of the political spectrum had a problem; they were tarred with the brush of fascism, Nazism, colonialism, and racism. “It was therefore hard to reach out to ordinary people and call yourself a right-winger in this time period,” says Bar-on.
The Nouvelle Droite “felt that the liberal left had all the cultural power in Europe and North America,” Bar-on explains. And its easy to see why; 1968 has largely been dubbed the year of revolt. Widespread student protest and then an all-out strike paralyzed France, and spread to London, Berlin, and other European capitals. While calm was eventually restored, French president Charles de Gaulle never recovered from the widespread impact of the protests and was voted out of office a year later.
To counteract the student and worker revolt of May 1968, a group of about 40 intellectuals met in the French city of Nice to reinvigorate themselves and transform French and European society. “They began a long, cultural march through the wilderness, trying to win respectability for the right,” Tamir Bar-on adds.
They called themselves as the Group for Research and Study of European Civilization, or GRECE. They explicitly rejected fascism, particularly the anti-Semitism and biological racism of the nazis. Instead, De Benoist called for the right to learn from the enemy.
De Benoist had famously drawn from Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who believed that ideas the public held were key for revolutionary change. Using this philosophy, De Benoist also rejected the old tactics of fascism, such as paramilitary marches, violence, and parliamentary politics. He argued that the pre-condition for all revolution is “the capture of cultural power,” Tamir-on explains. A Coup d’état was no good for the Nouvelle Droite, they were now concerned with winning the battle of ideas.
To make their ideas more palatable to a skeptical public, the Nouvelle Droite thinkers drew from left-wing critiques of capitalism. They rallied against the ravages of globalization and called for the need to self-organize. At the same time, they were harsh critiques of immigration. Activists of the Nouvelle Droite would argue that they were the believers in true diversity who were invested in protecting ethnicities and cultures from globalization, which they argued dilute cultures and identities.
While they asserted the right of all ethno-cultural entities to exist, they firmly believed people should do so in their own homogenous places in tune and in touch with their own traditions. In de Benoist seminal work View From the Right, he notes that “the gradual homogenization of the world, advocated and realized by the two-thousand-year-old discourse of egalitarian ideology, to be an evil.”
The change in tactics was particularly notable during the Algerian war of independence. While most of the right saw Algeria’s independence as a significant loss for France, de Benoist did an about-turn, using the de-colonization struggle as an opportunity to promote his brand of ethno-pluralism and challenge the left on their own turf. The philosophy was simple; ethnicities should exist in their own, homogenous places and preserve their own traditions.
While the Nouvelle Droite (and particularly de Benoist) was innovative in the ways it blurred the lines between the right and left, the movement didn’t escape criticism—the most common accused them of trying to camouflage a far more extreme ideology in leftist language. The left were so alarmed with the association de Benoist and the Nouvelle Droite work with former communist theorists, a group of 40 French intellectuals signed a letter (titled “An Appeal to Vigilance”) in Le Monde in 1993, alleging the movement posed a threat to democracy. A year after the original letter came out, it was republished with an additional 1,500 signatures.
That said, fears that immigrants are unable to assimilate in France have persisted and remains in the national psyche today. The alt-right was America’s answer to the Nouvelle Droite. “This is where de Benoist and a guy like Spencer meet,” Tamir Bar-on says. “They try to rehabilitate values and ideas that in a sense were discredited.”
The group that marched in Charlottesville was clear about its 1930s-style politics; protestors shouted neo-Nazi slogans (“blood and soil”), wore Nazi arm bands, and carried fascist flags. The protest also turned bloody; a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed and dozens were injured after a white supremacist plowed his car into a group of counter-protestors. And while the chaos at Charlottesville gave the alt-right their biggest platform to date, it also sparked a fierce backlash.
The alt-right “is already becoming isolated,” Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies, a new book on the alt-right tells Quartz. “The number of people who would actually join a rally with Spencer now is really small.” Spencer and the movement he purports to lead were hit from all sides—even those on the right who flirted with the alt-right have since distanced themselves from the movement in the wake of the horrific events that took place Charlottesville.
Following the violent protest, Spencer was forced to hold a press conference in a private apartment (he couldn’t find a hotel or space willing to host him). Four universities— University of Florida, Michigan State University, Louisiana State University, and University of Pennsylvania—have explicitly stated that Spencer is “not welcome” to speak at their campus. In response, Spencer sued a number of universities, forcing some to compromise or back down entirely (Michigan State University recently announced it has agreed to let Spencer speak).
Universities are crucial recruitment spots for Spencer, who not only wants to lure more young people in his movement, but wants to remain at the heart of debates on identity, oppression, and exploitation. He knows he’ll struggle to do so wearing the same insignia and shouting the same chants as he did at Charlottesville. To challenge the left, he has to beat them at their own game.
Thus, Spencer often speaks of creating a “safe space”—a term used by feminists, anti-racists, and any liberally progressive group—for white people. When Spencer talks of safe spaces, he rebrands the far-right so they appear as “left wing-nationalist entities,” Ross says. On colleges across the US, the alt-right has tried to insert itself as one of many competing populist ideologies to protect themselves from being labeled as extremists. They embroil themselves in debates around free speech, weaponize irony to spread their ideology, and hide in the milieu of academia.
De Benoist went on to collect a number of accolades since the 1960s, but one of his biggest achievements to date is people’s inability to place him on the political spectrum. Just last year, De Benoist told Buzzfeed he sees himself more left than right and that if he were American, he would have voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US election (he even claims to have voted for far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the French election). And though De Benoist disavows the alt-right (“Maybe people consider me their spiritual father, but I don’t consider them my spiritual sons,” he told Buzzfeed), he’s flown to the US to speak at the white nationalist organization, National Policy Institute, run by Spencer.
Unlike De Benoist, there’s little confusion on where Spencer sits on the political spectrum. He’s been explicit about his need to fight for white people—at the expense of everyone else. But the far-right activist has slowly shifted the line of what’s acceptable to debate in universities and in public, and coated the more extreme elements of his ideology with left-wing discourse. Critics of the Nouvelle Droite are now looking across the Atlantic to see if the alt-right are able to rebrand and have the same enduring impact on national discourse.